The beverage industry has been striving to address public unease over scenes of piles of plastic waste polluting the oceans by pledging to increase recycling programs. However, it’s not all black and white on the green front.
Bottled water multinationals are stepping up testing easily recyclable aluminum cans to replace the plastic that pollutes the world’s seas. A win for the environment? Not quite.
Aluminum cans may mean less ocean waste, but they have their own ecological cost: the production of each can sends about twice as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as each plastic bottle.
The beverage industry has been scrambling to address public unease over scenes of huge piles of plastic waste polluting the oceans by pledging to step up recycling programs.
However, it’s not all black and white on the green front. By increasing recycling through cans, companies could be undermining their efforts to reduce their carbon dioxide footprint, illustrating the juggling job they may face in pleasing investors, activists and environmentally conscious consumers.
“That’s the dilemma where a choice will have to be made,” says Ruben Griffioen, sustainability director for packaging materials at Heineken, adding that the company was trying to reduce both plastic waste and emissions.
Recycling plastic is more complex, there is a degradation process and there are lower reuse rates than with aluminum, so metal has emerged as a greener alternative. Cans have an average of 68% recycled content compared to only 3% for plastic in the United States, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency.
New water brands are also making waves.
“Mananalu will rid the world of plastic water containers and start a wave of change,” says the website of the new canned water launched by Hollywood actor Jason Momoa, known for playing Aquaman. Another company, Liquid Death, proclaims its “eco-friendly cans” and uses the hashtag #DeathtoPlastic (“Death to plastic”).
“The aluminum industry can play up the fact that their product is infinitely recyclable, and they’re right,” says Martin Barrow, director of ecological footprinting at the U.K.-based nonprofit consultancy Carbon Trust.
“But primary aluminum uses large amounts of electricity and also has some chemical greenhouse gas emissions,” he explained.
Comparing the carbon dioxide footprints of aluminum and plastics is a complex calculation, because making the metal with hydropower instead of fossil fuels lowers emissions, while using recycled aluminum reduces them further.
However, when averaged across all types of metal, cans still account for about twice as much greenhouse gas as plastic bottles, Barrow points out, referring to figures from Europe.
At aluminum’s most polluting level, a 330-milliliter can is responsible for 1,300 grams of carbon dioxide emissions, according to an analysis compiled by Reuters, roughly equivalent to the emissions produced by driving a car 7 to 8 kilometers.
A plastic bottle of the same size, made from the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic commonly used for these products, accounts for up to 330 grams.
“When we look at a different material, we look at all the levers: carbon dioxide footprint, consumer preference, energy, water,” he said. “There’s a mix, there are some things that are not as desirable, but if you have five good things and one that’s not, we’re all going to have to make choices.” “It’s never going to be clean at all.”
So aluminum has a larger footprint in production because of the large amount of energy needed in the smelting process. However, and this is another sign of the complexities of environmental impact, the overall carbon dioxide calculations blur when other issues, such as logistics, are taken into account.
“It’s a complex picture, certainly,” says Simon Lowden, an executive who leads Pepsi’s plastics campaign. “You have to think about transportation, secondary packaging, time in the store-all those considerations come into play.”
Because aluminum is lightweight and cans make efficient use of space, less transportation is typically needed than for plastics or glass, while less energy is also needed to cool beverages in cans, something particularly useful in tropical climates.
“This means that in some markets aluminum would actually not produce as many greenhouse gases,” says Lowden.
Plastic fights back. However, while cans could well carve out a niche within the US$19 billion-a-year bottled water industry, they are unlikely to take over the entire market anytime soon, if ever, say industry experts.
One factor to consider is economics, as aluminum is more expensive than plastic: the raw material cost of a can is 25% to 30% higher than that of a PET bottle of similar volume, according to analyst Uday Patel of consultancy Wood Mackenzie.
A widespread shift to aluminum cans would increase costs for beverage companies, including new manufacturing infrastructure, some of which is likely to impact consumers, which in turn would impact the competitiveness of products against their plastics rivals.
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